How One Wolf Changed a Nation

013783-400dpi Clayton, New Mexico 1890s HIstory Library CH1By the time Ernest Thompson Seton arrived in Clayton, N.M., in 1893 as a hired gun to kill wolves, nearly all the wolves were dead. Post-Civil War New Mexico had welcomed an influx of cattle ranchers and sport hunters who saw the gray wolf as a varmint, a nuisance, something easily expendable with poison, a bullet or a rope.

The wolves that survived had grown cunning. They abandoned hunting in daylight, lest they become the hunted. They not only shunned the strychnine-laced meat that Seton left for them, but carried it away and hid it under debris. They avoided his steel traps, yet left bold footprints around his stone cabin at night.

The steps that Seton would eventually take to kill six wolves turned his path back on itself, recreating Seton as one of the leading conservationists of his time.

This weekend, the History Museum opens the exhibit Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton, celebrating the life of this artist, author and co-founder of the Scouting movement. On Thursday, May 20, guest curator David L. Witt, author of Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist (Gibbs Smith, 2010), spoke at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library’s Brainpower & Brownbags lecture series.

Witt at B&B lectureHe only had an hour, so Witt chose to focus on that pivotal year, beginning in 1893, when Seton brought his wolf-hunting skills to New Mexico: “At thirty-three, he almost certainly had more blood on his hands than anyone else in Clayton. None of it was human,” Witt writes in the book.

As he began his lecture, Witt warned the 35 attendees that “there are some dark parts; it’s about wolves. But it has a happy ending,” he added, “though not necessarily for the wolves.”

As Seton tried and failed in his early New Mexico hunts, he spent his free time studying the wildlife he could find – primarily, kangaroo rats – and ended up becoming one of the first scientists to publish drawings of the rats and their burrows.

(Also during that eventful year, he inadvertently invented a cattle brand for rustlers needing to re-burn the flanks of their stolen goods to camouflage the original brand. His explanation was that, as an artist, he was kindly answering some questions of a man whom he later discovered was a cattle-thief.)

Seton’s Calvinist upbringing also drew him into doubt in New Mexico – namely the religious belief that children are born in “total depravity” and must be made “good.” Seton decided he had always believed children were born good, and more important, could be kept on their own higher path by nurturing a bond with the great outdoors – thus planting the seed that would eventually become the Boy Scouts of America.

Lobo in the four traps, taken by ETS January 1894 Philmont collection CH1_edited-1Wolf blood would yet be spilled before Seton’s great transformation would take place. The story of how Blanca and Lobo died is a difficult one, Witt acknowledged in his lecture. He described the manic, melancholy howling of Lobo after Blanca was killed. He took care to give the audience only brief glimpses of either wolf in their fatal traps (the black wolf “Lobo” in his trap, at left).

The death of Lobo sparked in Seton an internal debate based on this question, Witt said: “Why do we as humans carry on this war against nature … destroying habitat and species?

“He spent the rest of his life trying to answer that question,” Witt said.

The exhibit explores how he answered it, in his literary and scientific output, in his art, in his studies of Native peoples, in the summer camps he established in Connecticut and Santa Fe that, in 1910, became the Boy Scouts, with Seton as co-founder. He became a man who today ranks among the likes of John Burroughs and John James Audubon, with a distinctly New Mexico twist.

We hope this exhibit inspires visitors to take a fresh look at their own relationship to the natural world — in part by acknowledging the matters that are dark and violent, and in another part by celebrating those that bring us joy. (Below, White-Winged Crossbills, oil on academy board, 1883, courtesy of the Academy for the Love of Learning.)

White-winged Crossbills 3x4

As Witt writes:

New Mexico provided Ernest Thompson Seton with the environment he required for deep spiritual reflection, first in the winter of 1893, and then again in the 1930s and up to the end of his life. Ever present in that process was his keenly felt responsibility for causing the death of Lobo. The King of Currumpaw, specimen #677, a seventy-eight-pound male gray wolf of the semi-arid grasslands, had, in his way, worked a kind of magic. By forcing Seton to ask “WHY?” Lobo helped him on his journey from wolf killer to student of the Buffalo Wind. Seton made a transformation within himself, putting the best of what he had learned to work its way in the world – where it is working still.

Opening weekend (May 22 and 23) is free for everyone, with special events in the Palace Courtyard. (See the schedule here.) The exhibit runs until May 8, 2011, with a full year of lectures, hands-on workshops and children’s storytellers to get you and your family in touch with your inner naturalist — and to keep the work of Seton going forward.

But why wait? Take a moment to ponder the Seton painting below (The Rooky Woods, watercolor, 1891, courtesy of the Philmont Museum). Let it play on your imagination and carry you into a walk through a forest. Hear the flap of the birds’ wings, the rustle of the leaves. Pick up a pen or a paintbrush and create. Plan your next walk – through your own rooky woods, your neighborhood or your backyard.

The Rooky Woods, watercolor, 1891, Philmont 34005, CH2

Party Like It’s 2009

This time a year ago, we were crossing fingers that floors would be finished, scaffolds would go away, artifacts would appear and maybe, just maybe, a few people might decide to show up for the New Mexico History Museum’s grand opening on May 23, 2009.

Boy, were we surprised. Not only did the interior look as spit-polish as the exterior, but more than 20,000 people stood in blocks-long lines opening weekend outside …..

4x5 lines outside

… and inside …

4x5 line inside

…waiting for a peek. (Worth noting: Those people who not only stood in the waiting lines but did so as a thunderstorm threatened to drown them.)

Since that auspicious start, we’ve drawn more than 150,000 visitors (more than doubling the attendance of our predecessor, the Palace of the Governors); held a packed schedule of lectures, workshops and performances; played host to the Crown Prince of Spain; and carried home an armload of awards.

In honor of its accomplishments and in gratitude to those who helped make the first year such a success, the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents voted to open the museum for free May 22 and 23.

“We want to throw a party to say `thank you’ for everything that New Mexicans and out-of-state visitors have done for us,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the museum. “The outpouring of support from visitors, scholars, donors, businesses, and especially our volunteers has carried us beyond our expectations.”

The highlight of the free “Wild Weekend” is the opening of Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton, an original exhibit created with special support from the Academy for the Love of Learning, home of the Seton Legacy Project.

“It took 20 years and the hard work of many dedicated staff members, volunteers and donors to create this wonderful new museum,” said Stuart Ashman, State Cultural Affairs Department Secretary.  “The overwhelming successes that we’ve witnessed during its first year of life are endorsements of these efforts.”

The full weekend schedule:

Saturday, May 22

10 am – 5 pm: Free admission, plus a sneak peek at the new exhibit, Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton, from 12 – 5 pm.

12 – 2 pm: The Wildlife Center in Española displays an assortment of the wild mammals and raptors it has rescued. Palace Courtyard.

Sunday, May 23

10 am – 5 pm: Free admission. Grand opening of Wild at Heart: Ernest Thompson Seton. Albert and Ethel Herzstein Changing Exhibitions Gallery.

12 – 4 pm: Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary brings a live wolf to the Palace Courtyard. Special program at 1:30 pm.

2 – 4 pm: Wild at Heart opening reception, hosted by the Women’s Board of the Museum of New Mexico. Booksigning of Ernest Thompson Seton: The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist with author and guest curator David L. Witt. Palace Courtyard.

Upon opening, the 96,000-square-foot History Museum joined a campus that included:

The Palace of the Governors, the nation’s oldest continuously occupied public building; Fray Angélico Chávez History Library; Palace of the Governors Photo Archives; Palace Press; and Portal Artisans Program. In its last year as a solo museum, the Palace drew 68,454 visitors.

POG exterior from Washington

Major accomplishments of the last year include:

Renovation of the Palace Press, including the addition of a new permanent exhibit recreating famed artist Gustave Baumann’s original printing studio


Opening the exhibit Santa Fe Found: Fragments of Time and hosting a series of lectures on the founding of the city, in honor of its 400th birthday

Comb helmet and breast plate

Moving 3,700 textiles and 10,000 artifacts (including 1,404 pieces of furniture) into new, state-of-the-art collections storage inside the museum

wedding dress 5x4

Acquisition of an 1842 book printed by Padre Antonio José Martínez on the first press in New Mexico, as well as letters written by Billy the Kid to Gov. Lew Wallace

martinez book 300

Winning a $147,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to partner with KNME-TV on development and broadcast of history documentaries

covered wagon

Playing host to His Royal highness Prince Felipe of Spain and his wife, Letizia, during a 400th Anniversary event

prince in ctyd

Publication by the Palace Press of Santa Fe Poet Laureate Valerie Martinez’s book, This Is How It Began, commemorating the 400th anniversary

This Is How it Began

Unveiling the commemorative Bill Mauldin stamp with the US Postal Service

unveiling 5x3

“Visitors tell us time and again that they love what we’re doing – and that they want more,” Levine said. “Our goal is to continue bringing forward even more of the stories that shaped the West, more exhibitions, more lectures, and more ways for people to engage with history and be inspired to explore more of New Mexico.”

A Walk Through Time

Plaza merchants shook their stores from slumber as city workers swept the square, their conversation a melodic Spanish carried by the spring breeze. Huddled in the morning chill, we were walkers from St. Louis, New Jersey, Maine, Florida, New York and Michigan, led by a woman from California who was about to bring aboard a few folks like Napoleon, Willa Cather and a Native American saint.

pat“The Italians did not have tomato sauce,” declared Pat Kuhlhoff. “The Swiss did not make chocolate. And there was never a potato famine in Ireland until Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas.”

With that, Kuhlhoff began one of the downtown Santa Fe historic walking tours she has conducted on behalf of the Palace of the Governors for 17 years. She and other volunteers rotate responsibility for the tours every Monday-through-Saturday from mid-April through mid-October.

It’s an informal start: Gather at what we museum folks know as “The Blue Gate” – a wooden gate on the east side of Lincoln Avenue that divides the Palace of the Governors from the New Mexico History Museum.

Tours cost $10, last up to two hours (depending on how many questions you ask), don’t require reservations, rarely achieve a pace more strenuous than an amble, and provide a stop for drinking fountains and restrooms. (The museum guides, by the way, do not accept tips.)

Kuhlhoff begins her tour by drawing connections between visitors’ home states and the American Southwest. “All of King George’s Red Coats got their red from Mexico,” she tells an East Coaster. In a way, she’s subverting the standard U.S. educational view of American history, as something that started back East and eventually pioneered its way to a desolate West.

In fact, Kuhlhoff tells her dozen walkers, Santa Fe’s history began some 14,000 years ago with Native peoples who farmed, tamed turkeys and dogs, fought with one another, and then fought with European settlers, before reaching accommodations that led to today’s Southwestern melting pot and its still-distinct ethnic ingredients.

Civil War monumentStanding in the Plaza, Kuhlhoff points to the obelisk commemorating those who died in the so-called Indian wars. She tells of how the word “savage” was chiseled out of its inscription – an oft-told story – but drops in something new: Napoleon saw obelisks used as memorials in Egypt and brought the idea back to France, where it took root and spread.

(We can also thank Napoleon for Southwestern punched-tin decorative arts, Kuhlhoff says. The general decided tin cans were the best way to move goods across long distances. Once goods made it all the way to Santa Fe, throwing away the cans they came in was deemed wasteful, so they were recycled into objects that now typify Santa Fe style.)

Kuhlhoff makes me see, for the first time, the gargoyle heads atop the Catron Block building at Washington and Palace.

She leads us into the Rainbow Man Courtyard on East Palace and points to the office where scientists for the Manhattan Project once learned of their top-secret orders.

palace ave architectureOn the corner of Cathedral and Palace, she compares and contrasts Territorial, Pueblo, Mission and Romanesque architectural styles.

Near the river, she stops at a bed of native plants and deftly IDs yarrow, poppies, aspens – before noting that, just upstream, nuclear secrets were exchanged, a crime that led to the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

On the steps of St. Francis Cathedral, she introduces visitors to the statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the first female Native American to attain beatification, and tells a bit of the history of Bishop Lamy, noting drily that Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is “not historically accurate, but popular.”

The walk includes information on the railroad era (with a timely restroom break at La Fonda) and on the use of acequias to move the desert’s most precious natural resource: water.

“You’re with these people such a short time and you don’t get to know them, so I try to make it really broad,” Kuhlhoff said afterward. “If you go into too much detail, people don’t have a basic framework.”

Getting that basic framework to them is easier said than done: “With the docent training we get,” Kuhlhoff said, “I could have these people out there for four days.”